From Haiti to Canada – Michaëlle Jean: A Viceroy from the Caribbean

mjThe world over, Canada enjoys a reputation as a country most welcoming to immigrants. Newcomers are not just welcomed with open arms; they are also cordially invited to actively participate in the life of the nation. Canadians thoroughly enjoy welcoming immigrants to their vast and often frozen land. Their warmth knows no equal.

Fully 20% of Canada’s population – or some 6.8 million new or aspiring Canadians – is foreign-born. That, however, does not keep them from claiming the highest offices in the land. It was thus that between 2005 and 2010, Haiti-born Michaëlle Jean served as Canada’s 27th governor general – the federal vice-regal representative serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure, the majesty in this case being the Canadian monarch Queen Elizabeth II residing in Buckingham Palace, London.

Michaëlle Jean was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1957 to a school teacher and his wife. In order to avoid her having to swear allegiance to then-dictator François Duvalier, as all Haitian school children at the time were expected to do, Michaëlle’s parents opted to home school their daughter. After Jean’s father was arrested and tortured by the dreaded Tonton Macoute secret police, the family decided to flee the country arriving in Canada in 1967 as political refugees.

In her new country, Michaëlle Jean grew up to become a journalist, television presenter, and filmmaker. She made news as the first person of Caribbean descent to present a newscast on French-Canadian television. Before long, Michaëlle Jean had become a fixture on national TV and an accomplished filmmaker. Her 2004 documentary film Haiti in All Our Dreams received wide acclaim and a number of prestigious awards.

In August 2005 it pleased the Queen, and most Canadians as well, to appoint Michaëlle Jean as governor general of Canada upon the recommendation of Prime-Minister Paul Martin who said of her: “She is a woman of talent and achievement. Her personal story is nothing short of extraordinary. And extraordinary is precisely what we seek in a governor general who, after all, must represent all of Canada to all Canadians and to the rest of the world as well.”

Michaëlle Jean was an instant hit with the public. She toured the country extensively and, more surprisingly, took a keen interest in her military duties as acting commander-in-chief of Canadian forces. She visited France for the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and insisted with the prime-minister on being allowed to visit the Canadian troops in Afghanistan brushing aside security concerns.

Michaëlle Jean stepped down after five years as tradition demanded, notwithstanding calls by both the public and politicians for an extension of her unofficial term. At the time of her departure from office, Michaëlle Jean enjoyed an approval rating of well over 60%. During her time as governor general, she showed by doing and being that all newcomers to Canada are free to dream and work towards the highest goals attainable.

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